Eugene natural beekeeper expands passion into neighborhood yards
To bee, or not to bee? That is not the question at Bill Wood’s home. You cannot walk past Wood’s front door without hearing an ambient buzzzzzzzzzzzing coming from the left edge of his front porch. It is hard to tell whether the buzzing is coming from his hive on the porch or the 14,000 bee swarm Wood captured that morning being temporarily contained in an wire enforced cardboard box next to the hive.
Later that day, Wood would be standing in the middle of a forming swarm of around 50,000 bees, while wearing nothing but a tan button-up shirt, jeans, and a pair of old shoes.
His passion for bees takes up just about every room in his home as well as over 60 hives in backyards around Eugene. “I just always wanted honey bees,” Wood says. “Something about a hive, the bees, they fascinated me; I wanted them in my yard.”
After unsuccessfully finding a beekeeper to install a beehive in his yard for him, Wood chose to study the art of beekeeping himself and build a hive of his own. “For my very first beehive, I built a platform off my garage 12 feet high,” Wood says. He had read that bees like their hives high in the air and chose to do whatever was in the best interest for his new bees. “I was swaying around on a ladder with a smoker and bees flying everywhere with an 80 pound box overhead,” Wood says. “Now I won’t even put a platform more than two feet off the ground.”
Today, Wood has formed his beekeeping hobby into a full-time job. After the company he worked for downsized and he lost his job, “All I had to work for then was the bees,” Wood laughs. For the past 6 years, Wood has spent countless hours building beehives, capturing swarms then introducing them to new homes, and studying bees.
Wood specializes in Warré beehives, meant for hands-off, minimalist beekeeping practic and also practices chemical-free beekeeping which provides bees with a natural environment to thrive in. “Sometimes bees will make homes in old toilets at the junk yard or old gas cans,” he says about bee swarms in Eugene that need homes. “I try to give them the most natural home I can.” The Warré hive is built with multiple boxes sitting one on top of another resembling a tree truck, which bees usually build their colonies in when in the wild. Wood says the Warré hive is meant to be friendly to the bees and friendly to the beekeeper by allowing easy maintenance and access. “It’s a nice place for these bees,” he says.
Because Wood’s yard can only accommodate three bee colonies, he has broadened his beekeeping practice by installing and maintaining hives in other homes in the Eugene area. “I wanted more bees,” he says. To do this, Wood first chooses a home that have a bee-friendly location. When he discovers this location, he asks homeowners if they are interested in housing a beehive in their yard. If the homeowners are hesitant to the idea, Wood moves on. “They should want them,” he says.
Wood often visits his hives around town to find homeowners sitting in front of the hive, watching them come and go. “A lot of people love bees, people just don’t know how to love them,” Wood says.
Elta Damron Sperry has one of Wood’s beehives in both her front and back yard. “My favorite thing about the bees, besides the honey, is listening to them,” Sperry says as she sits in her grassy lawn watching hundreds of bees pour out of their hive. “They have a very nice sound.” She says she appreciates the easy pollination the bees lend to the plants her family grows.
Wood is constantly discovering new things about bees, which he always shares with his wife, Marie-Christine Lhomond. “If it wasn’t for her, I would be doing something with bees, but not as well,” Wood says. “I knew her before I knew the bees.”
Though Wood goes into his everyday swarm catching, hive introducing, bee maintaining mode with little to no protective gear on, he rarely gets stung. “If one lands on my face, I let him sit there a while,” Wood says. “Bees are just dear little beings.”
A day in the life of a beekeeper on “Bee Day”
Bill Wood woke up early Sunday morning on June 3 to capture a swarm of bees near the University area of Eugene. “It’s bee day,” he said. The weather was sunny and warm, the ideal condition for bees.
Wood drove a few minutes down the road from his home to check on a beehive he has placed in a neighbor’s backyard. Hopping out of his car, he quickly walks over to the bee colony, which have begun pouring out of a small circular “port hole” window near the bottom of the hive. “They are thinking about swarming,” Wood said, an occurrence that takes place in a colony about once a year. “This is the birth of a new hive.” When a new “princess” bee is born, the old “queen” bee will leave the beehive with half of the bee colony to find a new home.
Moving quickly, Wood runs to his car to grab a long bamboo stick with a piece of cloth attached to the top.
Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers discuss Eugene’s newest project to save bees
The negative effects of chemical use on bees and a project to prevent pesticide use in Eugene neighborhoods were central topics discussed at the Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers’ meeting on June 5. The beekeepers discussed the issue of pesticides that are commonly used in gardens being linked to the decline in bee colony populations around the globe.
“Neonicotinoids are killing bees all around the planet,” said Phillip Smith, who has been working with bees for over 20 years. Neonicotinoids, introduced in the early 1990’s, are neuro-active insecticides that affect the nervous system of bees causing paralysis and death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “In this country, we like to throw the chemicals out in the fields and see what happens,” Smith said.
The pesticides being linked to the recent collapse in bee populations are not only affecting bee colonies. “The moths, the butterflies, the other pollinators are all going downhill,” said Bill Wood, who has over 60 beehives around Eugene. When pesticides are used in fields and gardens, plants eventually intake the chemicals to their tissue which includes its pollen and nectar. “If a bug bites the plant, they are going to get a big dose of the chemical,” said Steve Blake. “We need to be able to suggest alternatives to pesticides.”
To help prevent the use of pesticides and chemicals in Eugene, the beekeeper group is working on helping to collect signatures for the 1000 Friends of Healthy Bees Campaign. The campaign asks for community members to sign the “Honey Bee Friend pledge” which commits signers to refrain from using pesticides and other harmful chemicals on their properties as well as requesting that Eugene and Lane County commit to pesticide-free policies on all public property.
The Oregon Sustainable Beekeeper group aims to cultivate and encourage pollinator friendly habitats through sustainable and natural beekeeping methods. “We would like to change society to care better for the bees,” said a member of the beekeeping group. Many pesticides and chemicals used by commercial beekeepers prevent disease and other bee ailments. Smith said that sustainable beekeepers are at risk of disease because they don’t use chemicals to protect their hives. In the long run though, the bees and environment are healthier and able to survive as they would in nature.
Gary Rondeau, whose home the beekeeper meeting was hosted, along with fellow beekeepers at the meeting joked about bringing their “active duty” beehives to homes and stores who refuse to stop using or selling pesticides.
A local campaign aims to stop the disappearance of bees: Q & A
Bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of crops each year in America alone. During the past few years, beekeepers have noticed these tiny insects noticeably disappearing from their colonies. Frequently known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this disappearance of bees has left many scientists baffled, but according to the Denver Beekeepers Association, there is a cause scientists suspect are causing vital harm to the bees – pesticides. In Eugene, community members are teaming up with local non-profit organizations such as Beyond Toxics to protect local honeybees by aiming to stop pesticide use in neighborhood gardens. The Healthy Bees = Healthy Gardens project was launched to educate the community about chemical free gardening methods and ways to save bees in Eugene.
Gary Rondeau is a local beekeeper who grew up raising bees with his dad. His dad, now 86, still has a few beehives even though it’s getting harder for him to see the mites in the hive. Today, Rondeau has five beehives and a fair share of beekeeping triumph and horror stories. Rondeau encourages natural beekeeping and is a member of the Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers.
Ashley Shaffer: What is the 1,000 Friends of Bees Campaign?
Gary Rondeau: Doug and Jen Hornaday are a pair of local beekeepers and activists, and they came up with this idea of getting people to pledge not to use bee-toxic pesticides in their gardens and on their property. Once a whole block of people agree to the pledge, then the idea is to encourage beekeepers to place hives in the bee-safe areas so everyone benefits. They also have nice little signs to show support for the pledge and to encourage public awareness of the issues.
AS: How are you involved with the campaign?
GR: I’m a gardener and a beekeeper, so I was happy to sign the pledge not to use pesticides in my garden.
AS: Why do you feel this campaign is important?
GR: Presently, our EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is allowing some particularly insidious chemicals to be used by farmers and gardeners. We can’t count on the government to protect us, so we need public awareness of these issues, and we need to let people know specific steps they can take that will help. The 1,000 Friends of Bees campaign does this.
AS: How are bees affected by pesticides?
GR: Bees can be killed outright by many pesticides. Bee kills by farmers spraying insecticide is not a new problem. Over the years, beekeepers learned to keep their bees out of the direct line of sprayers, and farmers cooperated by using fast-acting fast decaying pesticides and spraying when bees were not around. We had an uneasy truce, with the occasional dramatic bee-kill that told us when we were failing.
In the past decade another class of insecticides have been developed known as neonicotinoids. These chemicals are extraordinarily toxic to bees. The amount of insecticide on a single treated corn kernel is sufficient to kill all of the bees in a strong colony. These chemicals are also not quick acting; they can stay active for months. Typically, because they are so deadly, they are used primarily as seed treatments. The plants that grow from the seeds are contaminated with the pesticide and so is the pollen and nectar the plant produces. However, the pesticide at the levels of contamination in pollen and nectar is not usually acutely toxic. Instead we have to worry about chronic effects of the chemicals in combination with other bee stressors, such as mites, disease pathogens, and poor nutrition.
AS: Are bees being affected in Eugene?
GR: The worst of these pesticides are used primarily in agricultural areas. However, there are several formulations of “Rose and Flower” treatments that are sold in garden stores that contain these problematic chemicals. Bees in a hive can fixate on a particular nectar source; there is a positive feedback from the waggle dance of successful returning foragers that recruits more bees to the same food source. If the food source happens to be someone’s fruit tree that they just sprayed with one of these pesticides, that can be bad news. There was a big central display pallet of Bayer Rose and Flower when I was at Jerry’s the other day. All that stuff is ending up somewhere in Eugene. I can’t see how some doesn’t end up with the bees. However, in general we are relatively lucky that in Eugene we have a diverse source of flowers for the bees and the chemical onslaught is not an overwhelming factor.
AS: What will happen if pesticide use does not stop?
GR: Watch and see! In our agricultural areas, use of pesticides is just part of doing corporate agriculture. Big Ag [Agriculture] practices are at least as much of a problem as any specific pesticide. Mono-crop planting, fence-row to fence-row with nothing but soybeans or corn, usually GM [genetically modified] varieties so that the big dose of Roundup kills absolutely all other living plants, leaves a green desert depleted of native biodiversity. When large fractions of a state are treated this way, entire ecosystems are lost. Bees can’t survive even if pesticides were not killing them. Corporate agriculture is showing no signs of slowing down.
The world is a big place. There will be pockets where honeybees will flourish on their own. Providing seven billion people with food using corporate chemical agriculture is not likely to end well. The bees that are part of this system are not likely to fair very well.
AS: What are the Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers doing to help the bees?
GR: Good question. We have had a couple of educational events for the public where we have had speakers and shown films describing the plight of the bees. As beekeepers, we also are looking for the best ways to handle pest and disease problems that our bees have today without using harsh chemicals in the beehive. We can compare experiences and share knowledge about ways of beekeeping that are more in tune with natural methods that do not require hive chemicals. We also encourage planting bee-friendly plants and make available optimized wildflower mixes that are suitable for this area.
AS: What are benefits of natural beekeeping?
GR: There is a resurgence of backyard beekeeping. Many of the new beekeepers wish to do things in a more natural way – often just allowing the bees to “do their own thing” and not actively keeping bees at all. This is likely to lead to mixed results. Many first time beekeepers lose their bees within a year or two because of Varroa mites and disease, and then get discouraged. However, hands-off beekeeping allows natural selection to proceed without human intervention. In the long run, the more hands-off beekeepers we have, the stronger the bees will be.